Adam Interviews JCC’s Josh Weinstein

Adam Interviews

Young and old who depend on the JCC for care and community fear for its future

Brighton, N.Y. (WROC-TV) — Josh Weinstein recently sent out a letter to all the members of Rochester’s Jewish Community Center telling them that because of the COVID-19 crisis without donations the center’s future would be in jeopardy.

Big and small donors all responded giving the center a few months of breathing room, but like almost all not-for-profits the JCC is not prepared survive indefinitely without activity within its building in Brighton.

As CEO, it’s Weinstein and his team’s job figure out how to sustain the JCC during the crisis and after.

If you’d like to donate, you can do so here.

Here’s his interview with Adam Chodak:

Adam Chodak: Where are we right now in the JCC?

Josh Weinstein: We’re in the main lobby of the Louis S. Wolk Jewish Community Center. Every day close to 2,000 people come in and out of these doors right here and pass by our main desk. We have a very unique membership base. Yes, it’s call the Jewish Community Center and there are a lot of Jewish people of all denominations that come here, but actually we pride ourselves on our diversity, 50% of our membership is not Jewish. We have all sorts of races, all sorts of religions represented, young and old come to this community center every single day to meet their health and wellness, their enrichment and their wellness needs. Our members come in to enjoy something in this 200,000 sq ft building that has been eerily empty for the past month. Today marks one month to the day that we had to close our doors on March 14.

AC: What is it like for you to come into this giant building with few people here?

JW: It’s almost like the Twilight Zone for me. I come in early in the morning and stay late at night. This parking lot is full of cars starting at 5 am until 10 pm. There are always people here, there are always people to talk to and for the last 30 days I’ve been the only member of the JCC that’s been here. I walk into a completely empty parking lot, passed this desk. There no voices in the hallways, not hellos from staff, no little children, so it’s eerily quiet wherever I go in the building.

AC: And that’s a scary prospect for the institution.

JW: It’s very scary. The community is in our name. It’s our middle name and so we pride ourselves on bringing people together. That is our business. We are in the business of bringing people together, living our values of authenticity, compassion, respect and inclusivity. We say at the JCC we’re people who care about people, we’re in the people business. So we’ve got a beautiful 50-year-old building, obviously it’s a little bit weathered, but it’s got a lot of nooks and crannies and we need to fill it with people and deliver it with people and when you don’t do that you really don’t have a business here every day.

AC: Fortunately the donors have stepped up to help to a certain degree. I know we’re learning as we go on here, but how far does that get you?

JW: So let’s talk about a not-for-profit in the community setting in particular. We have a $13 million annual budget and that really runs 5 core businesses health and wellness, our early childhood, our summer camp business, our arts and culture book and film festival, and then our Jewish life programming. So 5 different businesses, $13 million and every year we’re around balanced for that budget, so we’re not throwing off all this cash to cover a period of time when we’re not bringing in member revenues or program revenues. We do have some debt because we also did a major capital project, so we owe some money to the bank and we also have capital needs that we have to invest in a 50-year-old building. So if all of the sudden on March 14 you turn off your revenue sources for the most part and we’ll talk about where the revenue is coming from, you’re stuck with a $500,0000 a month expense item that isn’t primarily covered by your every day operating cost. Someone might ask, well, how is it $500,000. Yes, we’ve turn down the heat and turned off the lights. There are minimal operating expenses, but unfortunately and fortunately we have a great big staff and we cover the unemployment insurance for our staff so whether they’re employed or they’re furloughed, the JCC has a significant burden of several hundred thousand dollars per month just for staff salaries and health benefits for the staff. So at the end of the day you have a $400,000 to $500,000 burn rate with minimal revenue sources.

AC: What was that like to furlough the staff?

JW: So I pride myself on living our values. I came in 18 months ago and that was a primary goal: create a purpose, we fill the tent with light and we welcome all to shine, we created a value system and I mentioned them before, authenticity, compassion, inclusivity and respect and we all live those values. We hire those values, we reward and recognize those values. And so looking my staff in the face who has rallied together and lived our values and having to saying, “I’m so sorry, but for the moment in time, while we’re figuring out the business and weathering the storm you’re going to have to wait in the wings and on the sidelines,” it was the hardest day of my career hands down. One of the beautiful things about the staff is the outpouring of support. They’ve reached out directly and said we understand primarily why you made this decision and many said I only wish I could wake up Monday morning and help come in and fight for the cause to get the doors back open. It’s my charge to work tirelessly and the board of the directors and the senior staff that is still working daily to figure out a model to get the doors back open as soon as it’s safe so that we can bring staff back and we can start launching programs on the other side.

AC: What does that look like on the other side?

JW: Adam, I wish I had the answer to say it’s going to look just like this. I’ve been in the business of building businesses my entire career. I think every day, we listen to the news and try to find out the needs people are going to have when they come out on the other sense. Yes, it’s going to be health and wellness and entertainment and socialization, but in the new reality, what is that going to look like and so you have to build scenarios and ideas for almost the unimaginable. People don’t want to come within 6 feet of each other, but they want to work out in a group fitness class, how are you going to make that work? So we’ve set up new business models to figure out how we can monetize our businesses so we can run the agency but accept the new realities of society and so there’s lot of different scenarios being worked on and it’s happening at breakneck speed, which is the other thing, typically when you innovate, it’s more of an evolution.. Over time something becomes obsolete and you start working on a new solution. Here we are on April 14t trying to create a business model that may go into effect on May 15th and it’s from scratch. So we have to have scenarios for May 15, July 15 and September 15 with all the unknowns.

AC: There’s no guarantee that this continues, right? There’s a hope and people are stepping up, but that’s the reality we live in.

JW: Yeah, look, I have every intention that the doors are going to reopen. I was here in 1975 in the very first preschool class in this building. I spent my entire life here. I can’t imagine life in Rochester, I can’t imagine Jewish life in Rochester without a central hub of Jewish life at the JCC. That being said if this goes 6 months, if this goes 9 months, we have had some early relief, we do have some strategies for funding, but at some point, who knows how long this is going to go on for and so we’re going to keep fighting the fight. We’re going to keep raising money, applying for loans, looking for creative solutions to leverage our assets and at the end of the day building financial models that can help us sustain as long as we can without having a member base that’s actively walking through the door and scanning in every day.

AC: What’s the ideal situation for you right now? The realistic one…

JW: I would say by June 1st we’ve got some relief where it’s safe for people to be out and about, they’re safe to come to a building. We’re building some model for health and wellness, some arts and culture that takes social distancing into consideration. One of the beautiful aspects of our facility is that it’s 200,000 sq ft, that’s a big facility, so it allows us to spread out a little bit if we need it. So an ideal situation would be as we move into June, July over the summer, we’re starting to bring people back, we’re allowing them to get back into their routines and do it in this new model and ideally by September 1, I guess we’re back to doing business as we did, but probably with a few tweaks given our current environment.

AC: So now we’re in JCC’s Hart Theater, one of the liveliest places normally and how telling the set behind you was for a play that never went on.

JW: They say on Broadway that the show must go on, but unbelievably this is one of the cases the show did not go on. This is the set of Sweat, a Pulitzer-prize winning play that we got rights to about an industrial town in Reading, PA and the struggles of a factory that closes coincidentally. It was supposed to go on on March 21and go on through April 5 and in this case we have indefinitely postponed the play. For months leading up to opening the cast would be here in the auditorium, I’d be leaving at 9 pm and pop in and say hi, it was coming together so nicely, we were so excited. We are exploring a Zoom version of the play Sweat with the characters playing their role in their split screens and we’re going to see if we can do that, but unfortunately the show did not go on.

AC: This also makes me think about the kids. You guys have the children’s theater and the Wolk school, you have the camp. Out of all the groups you’d like to see come back do you think the kids would be the best at this point?

JW: Well, there’s a huge need with the kids at this point. Parents need to go to work. It was devastating to look at parents who needed our services and say due to the risk, we have to close the children’s centers and we have to delay the camps possibly but parents rely on all this so they can go to work. I think children fill the building with laughter. I would say the intersection between the children and the seniors is really the daily magic of the JCC. We have a robust senior population and, again, it’s so sad that we have close the door on the senior population because they are at high risk, they come here every day for socialization, maintaining their health needs. We say from babies to Bubbies at the JCC and that’s what makes it so special, every day you have grandparents and children and you’ll see them interacting with one another.

AC: And I’ve got to think that for the viability of the JCC, a school and the camps, a lot of money comes in through those.

JW: Definitely, we are a not-for-profit, but when you are a not-for-profit, you have some profit centers that generate some funds that end up funding the cultural arts or community-wide activities that you do and so, yes, we do make money on those things. It’s going to be important that as we do break out new models, we concentrate on models that can break even or are profitable and we’re going to have to look at it business by business. On Day One we might not be able to just open 17 rooms of childcare again because the demand may not be there on Day One and so how do you roll it out? How do you find out from your parents who’s interested in sending your kids again back to school and then form classrooms around the number of kids that you have, those are all the types of conversations and business modeling that we’re thinking about? How do you take a fitness center that is so expansive, yet has so many machines on top of each other and create social distancing so people can come back in and get their health and wellness needs without having to be in touch close proximity to one another? How do you take a beautiful 300-seat theater that is mostly sold out whether it’s a CenterStage adult play, whether it’s a children’s play, in fact the last weekend before we closed, I came to a packed theater to see Flat Stanley and it was full of grandparents and parents and children as Flat Stanley was up on the stage. Well, now in the new reality if people don’t want to sit next to each other on Day One how do you open a theater and how do you do cultural arts and we’ll have to figure all that out? So those are the new realities and the new challenges we’re faced with.

AC: So we’re in the fitness area now. The JCC is more than just a gathering spot, it is more than just a fitness area…

JW: We’re standing right here in the Champions Fitness Area, our brand-new fitness center. It’s a little bit eerie to be here and not have people working on the machines, but the JCC is definitely a gym and it is definitely is a camp and it definitely is a theater and it definitely is an early childhood facility, but it’s also a Jewish community center, it’s a central hub of Jewish life. It’s a place where Jews of all denominations come to interact to live Jewish values. It’s a place where Jews and non-Jews come together and understand one another and in fact, I would argue that a Jewish community center helps to break down a lot of barriers between communities and our JCC in particular we pride ourselves on our diversity, we pride ourselves in knowing that we can understand Islam and we can understand Christianity at the same time we can be in a Jewish community center that has a Kosher deli and takes off the Jewish holidays or has Israeli dancing going on in one of our dance studios and that’s what makes our community so beautiful.

AC: I think a lot of members are aware of that and they’re donating, they’re giving of themselves to make sure this lasts.

JW: We spoke about this a little earlier. The revenues, the camp that’s coming up, now that they’ve been turned off they don’t offset our costs. We are a 111-year-old organization, this is our 3rd location in Rochester and we’ve weathered a lot of storms, whether it was the Great Depression, whether it was WWII, whether it was 2008 financial crisis. This one caught us off guard. There really wasn’t a scenario, there wasn’t a playbook that says imagine that you can’t open your doors for 30 days going on question mark and so we did reach out to our community and it really started with our Board of Directors, our major donors from the past that said we can’t let this organization not come out OK on the other side. We’ve generated $1.2 million. Now you may think that’s a huge number, but when you think about it, if it’s $400,000 to $500,000 a month burn rate to keep the agency afloat and then you have to open on the other side with brand-new business models that we don’t even know what they look like yet. We anticipate that it could be up to $4 million just to come out the other side with a viable business. And we’re at the tip of the iceberg, we’re just getting momentum. We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of gifts both from major donors all the way to $10 online from community members who say I’m going through a lot right now and that’s the one thing, we know that everybody is going through a lot financially right now, but people are digging into their piggy banks and their bank accounts where they can and making donations to the JCC. We’re so fortunate that we serve so many people, so many diverse people who care about this organization and that are rallying around it right now.

AC: Do you think there might be even a more tight-knit feeling around the JCC on the other side because those who paid will feel invested and those who didn’t will be feel supported by others because they have a place to go that might have otherwise disappeared?

JW: I think so. I think everybody is chipping in and doing their part right now and not only are they giving money, they’re giving suggestions. I get emails every day and phone calls, have you thought about X, Y, Z. I’ve given you $180, but have you thought about this to make more money. We did ask our members who are able to continue paying their membership dues, we’re going to do our best to provide service during the closure, we’ve got online content, we’ve got online classes and camp singalongs online and things like that, but to the extent that people are able to help, we’re asking that they do, whether it’s volunteering, providing content, whatever it might be.

AC: What else would you like to add?

JW: It’s not just about donations, it’s not just about dues, we are looking at other sources of funding and that’s a question I get often, we’ve heard about this new stimulus package, how is the JCC tapping into that. We are applying for some of the relief packages. The PPE, SBA loan we applied for for over $1 million. There’s something called the idle loan that we’re exploring extensively. We’re exploring some of our assets and how we leverage those, whether we sell of a piece land, whether we can in these conditions, we recently did purchase some new land or whether we come up with a new debt restructuring plan for some of the debt that we have so we’re looking in other areas to help with our finances, no stone is unturned right now

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